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Golden Lion banner of the newly annexed Kingdom of Rus at the Battle of Grunwald

The Battle of Grunwald: An Iconic Medieval Battle of Central and Eastern Europe

During medieval times, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had one main enemy – the Teutonic Order. One of the most important battles between these armies took place on July 15, 1410.

In the morning, two large armies stood on opposing sides of the field. One group was led by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Urlich von Jungingen. Their rivals were the connected forces of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania led by King Władysław Jagiełło and his brother Vytautas. According to the descriptions, it was a hot and sunny day. The battle took just a few hours, but there were countless victims. By the evening, the field was full of bodies. The statistics prepared by historians say that the Teutonic Order lost 200-400 Teutonic Knights and 8,000 other warriors, while their enemies lost 4,000-5,000 soldiers. But the newest research suggests different numbers.

The Worst Battle of the Region

The battle is also known as the First Battle of Tannenberg and the Battle of Žalgiris. The battlefield was located in the territory of the monastic state of the Teutonic Order. It was on the plains between three villages: Stębark (Tannenberg), Łodwigowo (Ludwikowice, Lidwigsdorf), and Grunwald.

Territory of the State of the Teutonic Order; the locations and dates of major battles, including the Battle of Grunwald, are indicated by crossed red swords.

Territory of the State of the Teutonic Order; the locations and dates of major battles, including the Battle of Grunwald, are indicated by crossed red swords. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It was the result of the long lasting conflict between the sides. The Teutonic Order arrived in Prussia in 1230. They conquered the land of Prussia and some other regions which belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland. The war with the Teutonic Order started in 1409 with the uprising in Teutonic-held Samogitia. It was started by Vytautas’ forces.

When the conflict grew, Jungingen asked the Polish King to stay neutral and not support Lithuania. Jagiełło refused, so the Grand Master decided to attack the Kingdom of Poland. The Teutonic Order burned the castle at Dobrzyń nad Wisłą and captured Bobrowniki and a few more towns. Negotiation attempts with the Teutonic Order failed, so both sides prepared for battle.

The Polish-Lithuanian forces had their strategy ready at the end of 1409. The King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania decided that their armies would attack the greatest castle and the capital of the Teutonic Order – Marienburg (Malbork). However, the Teutonic Order’s actions finally shifted the battle to the field near Grunwald.

Map of army movements in the Grunwald campaign.

Map of army movements in the Grunwald campaign. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The battle started from a diplomatic incident. According to Jan Długosz, who served as the secretary to the Bishop of Cracow and wrote about the battle 60 years later:

''Mikolaj, the deputy chancellor of the Polish Kingdom, having received the royal order, went to the supply columns, and the king intended to put on his helmet and march off to battle. Suddenly, two heralds were announced, led under the protection of Polish knights in order to avoid an act of aggression. One of them, from the Roman king, had a black eagle on a gold field in his coat of arms, and the other, from the Szczecin duke, had a red griffin on a white field. They came out of the enemy's army carrying unsheathed swords in their hands, demanding to be brought into the king's presence. The Prussian Master Ulrich sent them to King Władysław, adding also an arrogant order to rouse the king to commence the battle without delay and to stand in ranks to fight.''

It is impossible to count the number of warriors that were in both armies. However, historians suggest that there could have been about 21,000 on the side of Teutonic Order and perhaps 29,000 on the Polish and Lithuanian side. The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order lost his life during the battle - his body was buried in Marienburg Castle. The battle became one of a few of the most important ones in this part of the world, but history describes it a little bit differently.

Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic Knights (bas-relief).

Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic Knights (bas-relief). ( Public Domain )

The Power of Propaganda

The battle of Grunwald is one of the most popular motifs in Polish history. It became one of the symbols of Polish bravery and triumph. After the battle, the armies met under the walls of the castle in Malbork (German Marienburg). The siege of Malbork took place from July 25 to September 19, 1410. It ended with the Polish-Lithuanian forces’ loss. Marienburg is now the biggest medieval brick castle in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Malbork Castle from across the Nogat.

Malbork Castle from across the Nogat. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Moreover, many modern essays and books identify the leader of the Polish-Lithuanian forces as King Władysław II Jagiełło, also known as Jogaila. However, before World War II, historians were sure that the one who led the army was Vytautas the Great (known also as Witold Kiejstutowicz), a brother of Jogaila and the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Jogaila wasn't an impressive warrior, but he was a good king. On the other hand, Vytautas was known to have been a charismatic and very skillful leader.

The most famous painting related to the history of the battle is a monumental work by Jan Matejko. Matejko lived during the 19th century. He placed Vytautas, not Jogaila, at the center of the painting. He presented the Grand Duke of Lithuania as the heart of the army, while Jogaila did not appear on the painting at all.

This painting agrees with the statements of Jagiellonian University historians, who suggested that the battle of Grunwald was led by the Lithuanian Duke and it was won due to his strategy and skills. After 1945, historians began to write that they were convinced of Jogaila’s importance and created a story more like a legend or propaganda than historical fact. A few researchers still fight about the true story behind the battle.

Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko (1878).

Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko (1878). ( Public Domain )

The Power of the Legend

Every year, Polish people organize a reenactment of the battle near Grunwald. It is one of the biggest events connected with the history of Poland during the summer. A few days later, a similar event takes place in Malbork. Sometimes the main guest of the celebrations is the current Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, who lives in Vienna, Austria.

A museum for the battle stands on the battlefield and researchers are still looking for the graves of the warriors. One burial has been discovered near the chapel located on the field. However, many secrets of the battle still wait to be unearthed.

A monument to the Battle of Grunwald was erected in Kraków for the battle's 500th anniversary. It was destroyed during World War II by the Germans and rebuilt in 1976.

A monument to the Battle of Grunwald was erected in Kraków for the battle's 500th anniversary. It was destroyed during World War II by the Germans and rebuilt in 1976. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Top image: "Golden Lion banner of the newly annexed Kingdom of Rus at the Battle of Grunwald". Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

M. Jucas, Grunwald 1410, 2010.
S. Ekdahl, Grunwald 1410, 2010.
S. Jóźwiak, K. Kwiatkowski, S. Szybkowski, Wojna Polski i Litwy z Zakonem Krzyżackim w latach 1409-1411 , 2010.
S. Kuczyński, Wielka Wojna z Zakonem Krzyżackim w latach 1409-1411 , 1960.
M. Biskup, G. Labuda, Dzieje Zakonu Krzyżackiego w Prusach , 1986.
Bitwa pod Grunwaldem w historii i tradycji Polski i Litwy , by Tadeusz Grabarczyk, available at:
https://www.academia.edu/6931269/Bitwa_pod_Grunwaldem_w_historii_i_tradycji_Polski_i_Litwy._Annales_Universitatis_Paedagogicae_Cracoviensis_vol._99

The Battle of Tannenberg or Grunwald in 1410, according to Jan Dlugosz, available at:
http://www.deremilitari.org/RESOURCES/SOURCES/dlugosz.htm

Comments

Mongolians: The Golden Horde have supported the Poland in this battle :) You forgot to mention it.

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